Better husbandry might make lentils a profitable alternative
By Allan Wright
LENTIL growing could help one Scottish farm survive falling commodity prices, but only if crop husbandry can be further improved.
This years crop at Preston Farm, Berwickshire is harvested, but yielded a modest 1.2t/ha (10 cwt/acre) from 5ha (12 acres).
"It has not been a vintage year. The crop looked well all summer but heavy, driving rain in the week before harvest ruined things and probably halved the potential yield," says Rob Forrest, who farms 600ha (1500 acres) near Duns with his father, Robin, and brother, Nigel.
The family has been moving to unsupported crops with real markets in anticipation of falling subsidies. In a good year the crop yields 2.9t/ha (1-2t/acre) putting it well ahead of cereal gross margins already.
Rob researched lentil growing in Canada and then spent a lot of time on his own market research. "There is a ready market out there from ethnic groups and health-food stores."
This was the fourth year of lentils at Preston and another step up a learning curve. Rob began with seed from Canada, switched to French varieties, and now grows his own seed. "If the crop becomes popular, I would hope to be a major supplier of seed," he says. "Seed is the major cost at up to £200/ha if it is imported."
There have also been experiments at Preston in seeding rates – from 65kg/ha to 100kg. "About 80kg is the recommendation but we upped the rate last year and certainly got a heavier crop – at least until the rain came. Lentils certainly do not like the rain."
A good thick crop is needed to compete with weeds, but lentils can still struggle. Chemical control is not easy because the crop is susceptible to many products, demanding careful product choice and application rates, says Mr Forrest.
Fungicide sprays were necessary this year because of the wet, humid conditions. Mr Forrest has used rye as a support crop for the lentils, spraying it off some time before harvest. "That was another reason why it collapsed in the rain."
Fertiliser costs are low because the crop fixes its own nitrogen. A compound dressing at sowing time (late September) is adequate.
At harvest the crop is desiccated like rape and combines in the same way as the oilseed crop. "It normally comes off at moisture levels close to the 13% required for storage," Mr Forrest comments.
"Competition in the market comes from third world countries with cheap labour. But there is a real market for the home product. I can sell all I can produce, and there will be lentils at Preston again next year," he concludes. *
Lentils are proving a profitable alternative crop for Rob Forrest.
• 5 years experience in Scotland.
• Autumn-sown, low input.
• Ready domestic demand.
• Retail value £1.60/kg.